Emma is the Queen of all revival names. Emma is Queen because she is truly a comeback kid; a name that reclaimed its former glory. You see, most revival names weren’t really that popular the first time around. They may have hit the top 50 or top 100. In some cases, they didn’t even hit the top 100 the first time, but they were popular enough that they were imaginable on our great grandparents’ generation.
When most revival names came back, they became more popular the second time around. For example:
- Sophia first peaked at #116 in 1882. After declining to the low 600’s in the 1930s, it came back and peaked at #1 in 2011
- Olivia first peaked at #213 in 1881. It gently declined but never left the top 400. It came back and peaked at #3 in 2009
- Isabella first peaked at #215 in 1880. After declining into obscurity, it came back and peaked at #1 in 2009.
Unlike other revival names, Emma, was really that popular the first time around. Emma was #3 for most of the 1880s and reclaimed that mantle again nearly 130 years later, reaching #4 in 2002, #2 in 2003 and #1 in 2008. This gives me chills, like seeing a has-been olympic athlete from twenty years ago medal again in his late 30s/early 40s.
Before you all get too misty-eyed, however, I should clarify something. Rankings are only relative. Compared to the number of babies named Emma, the name was actually a lot less popular in the 2000s than it was in the 1880s. The rankings are similar but the real numbers tell a different story.
For example, at Emma’s height in the 1880s, 2% of newborn girls were named Emma. Around this time, Emma even charted for boys, ranking between #461 and #815 until exiting the boy’s top 1000 in 1911. When Emma reached #1 in 2008, 0.9% of newborn girls were named Emma. Emma hasn’t charted on boys in a while. In 2011 there were 31 boys named Emma.
Due to an expanding name pool, the top ranking names are less popular than ever before. But when we compare names relative to each other, Emma is still the Queen of revival names.
There are a couple of pop cultural references credited with pushing Emma into the top baby name ranks.
The most recent is the eighth season finale of Friends, first aired in 2002, where Rachel gives birth to a baby girl, Emma. This could explain Emma’s big leap from #13 in 2001 to #4 in 2002, but Friends can’t be credited with popularizing Emma.
Friends simply made a popular name more popular. Emma hit the top 100 in 1993, almost 10 years before the fateful episode, and hit the top 20 in 1999. Based on this track record, Emma was positioned to hit the top 10 eventually; Friends may have gotten it there sooner, that’s all.
Another possible catalyst for Emma could be the 1996 Jane Austen based period movie, Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The timing could support Emma’s leap from #53 in 1996 to #36 in 1997. But again, the movie simply helped a name that was already on the rise.
Perhaps there is not one, but several references boosting Emma’s popularity; some not even consciously remembered. Back in the mid to late-80s, when I was around 11 or 12, I enjoyed reruns of a show called Kate and Allie in the summer.
The show revolved around two childhood friends, Kate and Allie supporting each other after their divorces. They moved into a New York City apartment along with their children. Kate had a cute teenage daughter named Emma. I distinctly remember thinking Emma was a cute name. For a while I may have even imaged naming my daughter Emma.
Back in 1984 when Kate and Allie first aired, Emma was refreshing on a teenager. The Emma character, Emma Jane McArdle, was probably born in the early 70s when Emma had been at a low point, eventually sinking to the 400s. The actress who played Emma, Ari Meyers, was born in 1969. Lisa would have been the expected name.
The Kate and Allie writers were pioneers when they named their character Emma. When the show first aired, Emma ranked at #342 and by the time the show ended five years later, Emma had risen to #151.
I doubt I was the only pre-teen girl watching Kate and Allie and adding Emma to my baby name list. Most of my peers had children during the years Emma entered the top 20 and rose to #1 (from 1999 to 2008).
Unlike Madison’s popularity, which is almost single-handedly attributed to a self-named mermaid in a 1984 fantasy film, Emma’s rise cannot be attributed to one single pop cultural reference. Now is a good time to acknowledge the obvious similarity to Emily, the #1 girl name from 1996 to 2007. Emma’s success is, in part, thanks to Emily’s success. Emma’s comeback is a classic example of zeitgeist in action.
And Emma may have declined from the top spot, but still ranked high last year at #3. What’s more telling are up-and-coming names that seem very similar to Emma, such as Emmaline, Emmy, and Gemma. While Emmaline has yet to hit the top 1000, both Emmy and Gemma have charted for the first time within the past 5 years and seen impressive gains. Emmy debuted in 2007 at #958 and has risen to #775 in 2011. Gemma debuted in 2008 at #889, and has risen rapidly to #354 in 2011. This suggests parents still like names like Emma, and are looking for something like Emma but different.
Someone looking for a less obvious substitute might like Elsa, which is slowly climbing the charts, ranking at #578 last year. Another option is Erma. Erma peaked in the 1910s and hasn’t charted since the 1970s. Erma may seem a bit fusty at the moment, but may appeal to bold parents looking for a “beautifully-ugly” name.
I can see Emma following a pattern similar to Amy 30 years earlier. In about two to three decades, after a steep decline, Emma could settle in the 200-300’s, but will always have a universally non-threatening, approachable, timeless sound.
Readers: Which Emma inspired name is your favorite?